Rebellion Buried history: 1838-present     
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Highlights > Essays & Articles
spacer Part 2: The buried history of the rebellion
by J.B. Bird
First published June 5, 2005
Summary: From the 1840s to the present, scholars have overlooked the facts surrounding the country's largest slave rebellion. This essay will seek to explain why, while exploring the country's general amnesia toward its most successful black freedom fighters, the Black Seminoles.

Note: The essay is still in development. What follows are general notes without scholarly attributions. While not complete, these should be of interest to people seeking answers on this topic.

spacer Introduction 

Through the 1930s, many slave rebellions were omitted from general accounts of American history. This trend dated back to at least the 1830s, when pro-slavery thinking -- dominant in most accounts of the American South -- tended to minimize all mention of slave resistance.

Pro-slavery thinking fell into disfavor immediately after the U.S. Civil War, but by the 1890s it enjoyed a widespread rebirth. This was during a period when the North and South were striving for national unity as a way to heal the scars of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Historians of the period were rarely concerned with realistic analyses of slavery, and the only rebellions that factored regularly in national histories were the failed revolts led by the Virginia slave Nat Turner in 1831 and the white abolitionist John Brown in 1859.

Pro-slavery thinking remained dominant in historical accounts of the South past the turn of the century and well into the 1920s. The oversight of the partially successful Black Seminole rebellion during this period is therefore not altogether surprising, even though the rebellion was the largest in U.S. history.

More mysterious, however, is its omission from historical accounts published after the 1930s and 1940s -- even historical accounts dedicated specifically to American slave resistance. The 1940s marked a general turning point when scholars began to examine pro-slavery arguments more critically. It was during this period, for example, that scholars began to debunk the enduring myth of the "happy slave," which had been prevalent in most mainstream accounts since the Civil War.

The trend toward more skeptical and realistic analysis accelerated in the 1960s, when slave resistance began to enjoy a vogue among American historians. Rebellions of all sizes suddenly became the subjects of scholarly articles, encyclopedia entries, catalogs of revolts, and in some cases extended narratives, like William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Stephen Oates's historical narrative on the same subject, The Fires of Jubilee (1975), both of which received prestigious national awards. The resurgence of interest took place as the study of slavery was becoming one of the most popular subjects in the academy. 

So how, despite all the attention, did scholars miss the largest slave rebellion in the country's history?

Certainly a number of factors conspired to allow this colossal blunder. The legacy of nineteenth-century censorship played a part, making it harder for historians to uncover the slave rebellion, since so few men spoke openly of it at the time. The Second Seminole War itself, during which the rebellion took place, has never been a popular topic for American historians, probably because it was one of the least romantic conflicts in the nation's history. The country was clearly in the wrong, to such an extent that a series of leading officers petitioned for peace plans throughout the conflict. A number of Americans had ambivalent feelings toward the war at the time, especially after the horrors of Indian removal became known to officers, politicians, and citizens. Finally, it was the only conflict that the U.S. Army did not conclusively win prior to Vietnam. In short, it was an ugly subject that the country, and its historians, more or less wanted to forget.

Much of the responsibility, however, falls to a very small group of scholars, the dedicated specialists who wrote about U.S. slave rebellions in general and about the Black Seminoles in particular. Their influence cannot be overestimated. General historians, such as editors of historical overviews, grade school text books, or compendiums like The African-American Almanac, rely on the specialists. If the specialists don't point something out, they will rarely catch it. Thus, errors committed by the top specialists are easily compounded and repeated.

In the arena of American slave resistance, two specialists stand out: Herbert Aptheker and Eugene Genovese. Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) has long been viewed as the most comprehensive catalog of American slave conspiracies, rebellions, or rumors thereof. It has been criticized for exaggerations, but remains the most frequently cited factual source. Genovese, a Marxist, is one of the towering figures of African American studies, and an altogether fascinating historian. His colleagues have disputed some of his theories but they have nonetheless embraced his two studies of slave resistance, Roll, Jordan Roll (1974) and From Rebellion to Revolution (1979), as factually reliable, which generally it appears to be.

Unfortunately, Aptheker and Genovese (and not just them, but virtually all leading scholars of American slavery) have failed in these books and their other publications to note the true size and scope of the Black Seminole slave rebellion, or even, truth be told, to note it at all. (For more on the general omission, see the related essay.) How or why they did this is hard to comprehend, since each man wrote about the Black Seminoles in their books, albeit tangentially. Did they miss the facts simply because they did not understand the complexity of the rebellion? Faced with a three-way conflict -- an Indian war/maroon war/slave revolt -- did they just lump the maroons and slaves together? Perhaps, although this is a somewhat lame excuse for Genovese, since he wrote specifically of joint maroon-slave revolts that occurred elsewhere in the Americas, and was thus quite familiar with the subject.

A possible clue can be found in one of the main ideas of From Rebellion to Revolution, Genovese's comparative study of slave resistance in the Americas. In the book Genovese tries to explain two facts that he inherited from Aptheker: why no major U.S. slave rebellions took place after 1831 and why none ever succeeded. Genovese sought to explain these alleged facts with a Marxist-oriented interpretation of American history, arguing, broadly, that after Nat Turner's uprising in 1831, southern Americans effectively co-opted their slave-proletariat by improving living conditions and offering them the feeble hope of emancipation through peaceful means, a nave dream that was easier for slaves to accept than the brutal consequences of leading a failed rebellion.

One might be tempted to conclude, cynically, that Genovese was trying to explain why the American proletariat never rose and that this was his answer. His analysis seems subtler than this and deserving of more attention. The analysis was not, however, entirely based on the facts.

Had Genovese examined the Black Seminole rebellion more accurately, he would have been forced to reevaluate his theory and his operating assumption, since the slave rebellion that they inspired, which took place after 1831, was clearly not only the largest in U.S. history, but was also partially successful.

In sum, it appears that Genovese and possibly Aptheker were wearing ideological blinders that prevented them from seeing the facts surrounding the Black Seminole-led rebellion -- either this, or they simply did not do their homework. Scores of historians, relying on their work, have followed suit. The Black Seminole rebellion was outside the paradigm, and so, it was never seen. Ironically, by adhering to inherited wisdom, historians of both the left and right have unconsciously perpetuated the legacy of a pro-slavery tradition.

While it is ironic that slavery specialists like Genovese and Aptheker contributed to the historical amnesia, it is even more ironic that much of the responsibility for the oversight falls to the one scholar who did more than any other to preserve the legacy of the Black Seminoles. From the 1940s to his death in 1981, Kenneth Wiggins Porter was the dominant historian -- and often the only one -- writing on the Black Seminoles. He wrote more than a dozen journal articles on the community, many of which figured in his pioneering history, The Negro on the American Frontier (1971). Fifteen years after his death the University of Florida Press published his definitive history, Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (1996), which is now the starting point for all research on the community.

His scrupulously researched books excel at presenting the action and drama of Black Seminole history with humor, insight, and nuance. Porter's work was further informed by his oral research among descendants, which gives a richness and poetry to his best passages.

While Porter succeeded in many respects, he paid scant attention to the Black Seminoles within the larger, national context of American history. He does not compare them to other African Americans. He does not assess their impact on the abolitionist movement, or connect their actions to federal policies and lawmakers. This tendency may explain why he, of all scholars, never bothered to weigh the comparative size and scope of the rebellion that they led in Florida. Porter was well aware of the basic scope of the rebellion, having published in 1943 an article that remains the best overall description of slave participation in the conflict. He did not, however, return to the slave aspects of the war in great detail later in his career. His major work on the maroons, Black Seminoles, deals only indirectly with the Florida slaves. Porter died in 1981 before he could complete Black Seminoles, which was edited and completed posthumously by Thomas Senter and Alcione Amos. Possibly, had Porter lived to write more, he would have addressed the comparative details of the slave revolt.

As it is, he left fantastic details, but did not assess the big picture.

Meanwhile, the pieces of the puzzle that establish the size of the rebellion have been available for decades. Despite the oversights of academic historians, they are relatively easy to piece together, even from secondary sources. 

Check back this fall for a finished essay exploring in more detail the curious reasons for the historical oversight of the rebellion, and presenting an overall historiography of the Black Seminoles.

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